Uncommon music criticized by the common man. (Or, exercises in futility masquerading as critical thought.)

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Sorry for the delay; it's been quite hectic 'round these parts the last few days. For those keeping track, this will be the third review. Three albums in the collection down, 770-something more to go.

1990 - Sire Records

Okay, I'm going to dive headfirst into a music critic cliche: I'm going to say something that flies in the face of the critical consensus. Normally, this is a device for critics to make a "name" for themselves, by saying something so outlandish that readers will create a buzz debating it. Since I have no readers (that I know of; feel free to let me know otherwise by emailing me here), I'm using this tactic just because it seems right for these purposes. Lazy? Sure. But appropriate. This is just something I've been kicking around in my head recently while listening to this album, and the more I think about it, the more confidence I have in this particular opinion.

First, the conventional wisdom: the shoegaze genre--and possibly 90s alterna-rock itself--hit its artistic peak with My Bloody Valentine's Loveless.

My response: not really.

The popular opinion is that MBV raised the bar and reshaped the possibilities of the guitar in a rock and roll context. And they did. Sorta. Considering that guitar terrorists like Keiji Haino and Sonny Sharrock predate this album by a good 20 years, maybe it's more realistic to say that they reshaped the possibilities of guitar within the indie realm. And even then, Sonic Youth might have something to say.

See, upon closer inspection, the place of Loveless in the pantheon of grand artistic statements becomes a bit tenuous. I'm not saying it's a bad album. The guitar textures are interesting for sure, and there are some nice melodies throughout the record. Yet, these are hardly the signifiers of a classic album. The way I see it, at the right place, at the right time, My Bloody Valentine released a difficult pop album. And that's the long and short of it. I have this theory that people tend to overestimate a music's worth if it sounds difficult, but they eventually "get" it. It's as if they are saying to themselves, "it took some time, and repeated listening, but I finally get this album. And because it took so long to get it, it must be a grand piece of art, the likes of which we've never seen and may never see again."

I'm not saying that such an experience is not rewarding. I think the great thing about many albums is the way they become so much more than that initial impression with each subsequent listen. But just because a piece of art takes time to "get," does that mean that other works that are more immediately pleasing do not rate as high artistically?

Which brings me to Ride. Ride's chance at elite status was pretty much obliterated with the last two studio albums they released, Carnival of Light and Tarantula. It was here where Ride began its descent into mediocrity, dishing up decent, if uninspired, folk-rock, with plenty of Byrds jangle. But there was a time where they were poised to be the best thing to come from Britain since, well, whatever the NME was overhyping the week before. And their highwater mark--from an album standpoint, anyway--was Nowhere.

The album kicks things off with the noisy psychedelia of "Seagull," with beautiful squalling guitars and monotone Brit melodies. It's a perfect opening statement for this album and one of the best tracks from Ride's career. "Kaleidoscope" picks up the pace, a little more energetic, but with less sheets of white noise. This opening one-two punch sets the bar high, and admittedly, the middle part of the album doesn't quite match it. That's not to say the songs are bad; far from it. Rather, Ride, instead of barreling on the forward momentum established from the get go, they decide to switch gears, starting on the the third track, "In a Different Place." If you read the Simian review below, you know that if I had a choice, I'd sacrifice diversity for a consistently infectious record. Things are no different here. The difference with Ride is that they don't let things drag too long. Song four, "Polar Bear," picks things up a bit, and the following song, "Dreams Burn Down," returns to some of the feedback drenched sound of the opening tracks. While it's still a bit of a "slow" song, there's enough going on that it doesn't become tedious.

The album pretty much continues on in this fashion, but never sounds same-y. "Paralysed" is a bit of a mopey rock song like only the Brits can do, while "Taste" speeds by on honest-to-goodness pop hooks. You see, one of the downfalls of the whole "shoegaze" genre is that they relied more on effects and textures than actual songs. Not so on this album. The songs are there in spades. Perhaps not the most poetic lyrically, but it's not an impenetrable fog of echo and reverb that characterized so much of the genre's music. The one exception might be the title track, which closes the album. This has a bit of an experimental feel, the guitars sounding vaguely alien, with the sounds of waves crashing on the shore as the song ends. It seems a fitting ending to the album, as if the waves of sound are finally starting to recede after leaving our bodies on shore, giving the audience a chance to admire the beauty, while considering the ride (no pun intended) they were just on.

While it may never be given the same amount of respect as Loveless, Nowhere will always be (to me, anyway) the true landmark album of shoegaze, a height they only matched once more--and surpassed actually--with the title track of their followup album, Leave Them All Behind. This song is without question the best song they ever recorded (followed closely by a b-side from the same era, "Grasshopper") and totally erases any other band's claim to definitive anything as far as shoegaze goes. The rest of that album is no great shakes, but "Leave Them All Behind" does in eight minutes what My Bloody Valentine failed to do in an entire career: write a truly epic rock song. Not since the Jesus and Mary Chain dropped Psychocandy has unrelenting white noise guitars and pop hooks been married so well. At times, you can't even tell there are guitars on the tracks--it sounds like the rhythm section is playing inside the engine of a jumbo jet. But it's so immediate and catchy and LOUD that you can't help but get pulled along by its momentum. It's a shame that they tarnished their legacy in their final years. If they had continued onward and upward, a lot less people would be waiting for Kevin Shields to finally finish the MBV followup (the fact that he's held out this long only adds to the mystique of Loveless). And who knows: if they had taken over, we may have been spared the travesty that is Oasis.